Part One: After hearing a story on the radio about a cholera epidemic in the Sierra Madres, I collected about a thousand pounds of clothes and blankets, packed them into my van and headed for the mountains.
I crossed the border at Douglas Arizona the next day. At Mexican customs I found out that you’re not allowed to bring used clothes into Mexico, even for charity, without a whole lot of special permits. After half an hour arguing and pleading at the customs bay, I had no choice but to turn back.
Back in the U.S. I figured all I could do was leave everything off at a church or Salvation Army, call it a day and head back home: Mission Failed. Then it occurred to me I could simply drive to a different border crossing and try again. So that's what I did. I reached the crossing at Naco just after sunset, and the customs people there were a lot less hard-ass than Douglas/Agua Prieta. When they asked about the clothes I told them I was taking them to the people in the mountains. They stamped my passport, said “Go with God,” and that was it: I was in.
The town of Naco lasted about three blocks. After that, everything turned to inky darkness: just me and my van filled with clothes rolling across the cold, moonlit plains. Off to the right I could see the foothills of the Sierra Madres looming black in the distance: 180 degrees of landscape without so much as a single electric light. There’s a decidedly creepy feeling one gets driving through a strange place at night, but it’s a feeling I like: just enough of a taste of danger to let you know you’re alive. When I started getting tired I pulled over on a dirt road outside the town of Janos. The mountains were larger now, shining blue in the moonlight, with snowcaps glowing on the distant ridges.
It took me most of the next day to stock up on provisions and reach Madera, the last town on my map. There was one dirt road heading into the mountains, so I took it. At first the road was fairly wide and in good shape, used primarily by logging trucks. I had to gun it through the muddy patches, but for the most part it was easy going. On ridges, and through the gaps in the pines I could see a seemingly endless line of mountains, misty and blue in the distance. As the road climbed higher it began to deteriorate, and the patches of snow along the sides gradually grew into snowfields. The sky, a cheerless gray, was growing darker and it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen another vehicle in close to three hours. Then it started to snow. Although I was getting undeniably nervous, the truth of the matter was that I was precisely where I wanted to be: in the middle of nowhere, in uncertain circumstances, on a mission.
I reached a fork in the road and went right, primarily because it looked like the better of the two. Big mistake. The road followed along a ridge and then began descending into a valley. Now on the shaded side of the mountain, the road was a lot snowier and icier than the one before, and quickly began to deteriorate. Between the weight of the load, the steepness of the road and the ice, the brakes, which weren’t so great to begin with, began to give out entirely. As much as I tried to fight it, I could feel the rush of high adventure gradually turning into panic. Using the emergency brake, which also wasn’t so good, I finally brought the van to a stop. I let the motor idle and rested for a bit to catch my breath and consider my options, which, given there was no way to turn around, weren’t many. From what I could tell I was about half way down the mountain, with the road ahead, or what I could see of it, remaining pretty much the same. Off in the distance I saw what I thought was a thin wisp of smoke coming up from the valley, and the thought that there were people nearby, anyone at all, made me feel a lot better.
I started back down the road, shifting into second just long enough to regret it, and then just kept it in first. My theory that the road remained more or less the same had been wishful thinking though, as it continued to get smaller, icier and steeper along the way, until I found myself half driving and half sledding into the valley. Towards the very end the road seemed to disappear entirely, and the last hundred feet was a barely controlled fall into an ice-covered river. At that point all I could do was steer and pray: stopping was no longer an option.
I hit the ice at about fifteen miles an hour, with water shooting up from around the pedals and through the floorboards. I hit the riverbed with a bone-jarring crash and everything in the back of the van flew forward. I jammed on the clutch and hit the gas in order to keep the engine running and somehow, with water up to the doors, managed to make my way across the river. Gunning it up the embankment on the other side I found myself on the outskirts of an honest-to-god village.
At least a dozen people had come out to watch me slide down the mountain and crash into the river, and a couple dozen more came out of their houses as I rolled into town. “Hello…” I thought to myself, "I’m here to help you!” When I finally brought the van to a stop, I collapsed on top of the steering wheel and laughed out loud, just for the joy of being alive.
As the people started crowding around I pulled myself together enough to ask if there was a church and that I had clothes I wanted to donate to it. A woman stepped forward and pointed down the road, and some kids started running, motioning for me to follow. The village consisted of perhaps two or three dozen houses of one or two rooms each, with tin roofs and walls made from timber or adobe brick. Apart from a couple of old cars and trucks, it could’ve easily passed for something from a hundred years ago. When I got to the small cinderblock chapelito, I started pulling out boxes and bags of clothing and blankets, piling them up just inside the doorway as the people watched and whispered. They were mostly old men and women, mothers and children. The men, I was told, were at work in the mountains.
An old woman who took care of the chapel locked it up and the people slowly dispersed. One of the women invited me to have dinner at her house and I accepted. We had rice, beans and tortillas together with her three children in a one room house with adobe walls and a dirt floor. There was a wood stove, a table and some chairs, a couple of beds, a picture of Jesus and what looked like gift wrapping paper hanging on the wall. Since my Spanish isn’t all that great, our conversation was stilted at best: “The mountains are beautiful. California is very nice. Yes, my car is quite old.” It was one of the more awkward meals and conversations I’ve ever had, in the dingiest of surroundings, and I was so happy to be there I almost cried. We played with the kids for awhile after dinner and then I went out to my van, climbed in the back and fell asleep looking up at the stars and thinking Here you are…
The next morning I gave her some blankets and clothes, trying to find ones that fit the children. Her brother came by on a horse and we had coffee and talked for a bit. He gave me directions to the next village, which was about two hours away. He said it was a much better road than the one I’d come in on, which, as it turned out, was primarily meant for horses.
The road followed the river for a couple of miles, climbed up about a thousand feet, and then back down. Thankfully it stayed for the most part below the snowline. The landscape was mostly pine forest and meadows, and apart from the ruts of the road and a few strands of barbed wire, there was absolutely no sign of mankind. I truly was in the middle of nowhere – somewhere between Ejido Hernandez and Pacheco, high in the mountains of the State of Chihuahua and everything around me was utterly pristine and beautiful.
It took over two hours of driving before I saw another human being, an old man walking along the road outside of Pacheco. I pulled over and asked if I was close to the village and he said yes. Separate from the boxes I had a few pieces of clothing, coats mostly, that were exceptionally nice. One of them was a men’s leather and sheepskin jacket, practically brand new, that had probably cost a couple hundred dollars. I’d wanted to make sure it got to the right person, and the old man walking outside of Pacheco in a dirty old windbreaker seemed like the one. I reached into the back, pulled it out and offered it to him: “Try it.” I said, and handed it to him. He seemed hesitant so I urged it on him: “Es de California… es un regalo.”
Once I got him to put it on it looked beautiful – practically transforming. I smiled and gave him a thumbs up, but he looked back at me more confused than anything else.
“Thank you,” he said, “But I have no money.”
“It’s a gift!” I said again in Spanish, and pointed to all the clothes packed into the back of the van. “These are all gifts… from California! They are extra! We don’t need them!” He kept looking at me as if I was joking, or trying to pull some kind of trick on him, and something about it was absolutely heartbreaking. I finally got him to accept the gift and drove on. I suppose it did seem crazy - some gringo pulling over out of the blue and giving away such a nice coat - but the more I thought about it the status quo seemed even more crazy: that we should have so much and they should have so little when all it took to change it was for someone to collect the clothes and do the driving.
I spent the next two days in the mountains, passing through Pacheco and two other villages where I gave everything else away. Apart from throwing a shock, the van miraculously held together, and when I finally rolled out of the wilderness, the town of Nuevo Casas Grandes looked like Manhattan. Dropping the van off at a shop, I checked into a motel, bought some food and fell asleep.
To be continued...